Positionings: A Round-up of Perspectives for 2007

Perspectives is a column (formerly titled 'Diaaalogue') inviting professionals in the contemporary Asian art field to share their views, recent experiences and upcoming projects. AAA warmly welcomes Deeksha Nath, an art historian, critic and curator based in New Delhi, as its guest columnist to review the 2007 Perspectives Columns...

The last few years has seen a surge in 'Asian' exhibitions in Asian countries. Asia has not had the sort of coherent identity present in Europe or North America nor does it have the misguided perception of uniformity that allows the easy use of the term 'African' to describe an otherwise diverse land mass. Extending from Russia to Sri Lanka, China to Iran, Asia is characterized by regional identities that happen to find themselves neighbours, and conveniently called the Far East, Middle East, South and Central Asia — terms that still follow a colonial positioning, with Europe as the centre.


My point really is about my position as a writer on Indian art, asked to review a column that informs on localized contemporary visual cultures within an international context. From what position can I speak other than as a journeyman, a traveller across unfamiliar and fascinating lands?


'Perspectives' for 2007 began on a sombre and introspective note with Chatvichai Promadhattavedi's contribution in January asking the question, will culture assist the Thais in growing up? He draws a history that links cultural production in Thailand to the project of nation building, but one that creates an image of a country for an outside tourist/consumer that does not represent or speak for an internal community. The author highlights the confusion felt by artists and those involved in cultural production as to what stance to take in the face of recent socio-political turmoil in Thailand and in a country focused largely on building an idea of itself in the minds of other nations without self-reflection or an investment in intellectual progress alongside material and economic development.  


Biennales, triennials and block-buster exhibitions showcasing the highlights of contemporary Asian art seem to abound, a trend that shows no sign of dissipating. In February Suhanya Raffel's piece reviewed the Fifth Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT5) held at the Queensland Art Gallery. A question arose in my mind while reading about the variety of themes with which the artists engage: are these themes 'Asian' or do they transcend the particularity of this region in today's global world? Raffel provides an answer by highlighting that the 'exhibition has never been about constructing a single regional identity. Since its inception in 1993 the APT has been involved in educating audiences about the complexity of the contemporary art of this region— including the many cultural and economic histories, languages and religions'. With the inclusion of film and over 300 exhibits, APT5 'upheld one of the shifts made in APT 2002... the commitment to represent artists and thematic interests in depth'. Raffel situated the this Triennial within the context of APT's past exhibitions, as well as in the building of new spaces, locating the exhibition within a curatorial history, rather then a social and political one and marking its evolution and its 'directed museological approach in the selection of works'. 


Dr Michelle Antoinette begins her March article by referring to the work of Malaysian artist Noor Azizan Rahman, Paiman, which was featured in APT5. While making this connection Antoinette writes on how contemporary Malaysian art is eclipsed from world view, a shielding that is the result of a 'broader dearth of critical discussions on Malaysian contemporary art, both in Malaysia and in the global art sphere'. This blind spot is even more surprising in 'a country that strives to be the biggest and the tallest, proud of its "world-class infrastructure" and "tiger-economy" '. Antoinette recognizes that the lack of international awareness does not translate to a lack of vibrant and flourishing contemporary art production in the country, but that this perception is vocalized through the lack of a Malaysian biennale or triennial, or at least the idea of a biennale. But it is through the spectre of such an endeavor that 'questions concerning local politics, art censorship and the policing of art practice in Malaysia, and how all of this sits in relation to international art practice and exhibition' are being raised.


While there is much to lament about what is lacking in Asia in terms of patronage, visibility and critical discourse, Flaudette May V. Datuin in her April text for 'Perspectives' retold the journey that led to the internet-based publication Ctlr+P Journal of Contemporary Art. Independent ventures are fraught with uncertainty — what she calls the 'Vol. 1, No. 1' syndrome — but the journal has been published since 2006, attesting to the success of net-based publishing, despite concerns of copyright and lack of accessibility in technologically challenged areas and communities.


Eugene Tan's article published in July and Alnoor Mitha's contribution in September take us on the journey of two unique organizations. Tan tells of the inception of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Singapore, which opened in 2004 against a backdrop of rigid state control, apathy among audiences and limited knowledge and interest from outside. With its expanding exhibition spaces and ambitious publication and education program, Tan states that the ICA hopes to make a 'difference towards not only improving the production and reception of contemporary art in Singapore, but also in highlighting the important role that art plays in society, particularly in mediating between the power of the state and the multifarious segments of society.' Mitha informs on Shisha, a diversifying agency based in Manchester which opened in 2001 to support Asian and Middle Eastern arts in the United Kingdom. In collaboration with other organizations, Shisha will launch UK's first Asian Art Triennial in Manchester (ATM08) in April 2008. ATM08's 'program will echo Manchester's strong political and social history, reflect new artistic practice and seek resonances between Manchester and Asia by exploring the notion of "protest" — in its widest sense'.


Context-specific initiatives such as the ones mentioned by Datuin, Tan and Mitha address existent drawbacks and vacuums and challenge stereotypical viewpoints about contemporary Asian artistic practices. Another time-based venture that has been initiated to fill an explicit gap is the Mekong Art and Culture Project, outlined by the secretariat team of the project, Chattiya Nitpolprasert, Jakapan Vilasineekul, Somrak Sila and Toeingam Guptabutra, in their article published in October. The Mekong Art and Culture Project is a two-year collaboration of leading art institutes across Southeast Asia including Cambodia, Laos P.D.R., Thailand and Vietnam. The aim is to expand and encourage contemporary art and cultural activities as well as valuable community-based experiences within the region. One of the areas of focus is the training of people to work within creative industries by enhancing skills such as curation and education. One of the expected outcomes is to prepare a model of collaboration among member art institutions in the same region that can benefit not only the institutions themselves, but also wider society.


Simultaneous to efforts such as the ones mentioned above, there are alarming instances of censorship, both by the state and by pressure groups. India has had its share of controversy: the public harassment of the artist M.F. Husain, which has led to his self-imposed exile from India, and, more recently, the disgraceful and as yet unresolved incident at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Maharaja Sayajirao University, Vadodara, which led to the arrest of two students and the suspension of the acting dean. The incident was incited by the youth faction of the ruling political party Bharatiya Janata Party who protested the examination work of a student on grounds of immorality.


In a contribution that complements the article written by Dr Michelle Antoinette in March, Kathy Rowland's November 'Perspectives'  relates the trajectory of censorship in Malaysia, which is increasingly becoming led by public outcry. The rise of what Rowland calls the 'citizen censor' is not unique to Malaysia but she notes a disturbing increase where the 'acts of suppression no longer appear to be random, reactionary acts by anonymous individuals or informal groups, as was the case in the 1980s and' 90s. The emergence of groups such as BADAI, the National Union of Malaysian Muslim Students, and Muslim Professional Association and Lawyers Defending Islam signal the emergence of a highly mobilized movement empowered by convictions that are both religious and political.' These so called guardians of morality trying to dictate what is or isn't acceptable cultural practice indicate a disturbing trend where branding of artworks by faith and/or morality can have serious repercussions.


As I mentioned at the start, the lens I have adopted is that of looking in from the outside. It is an oddly comforting position to inhabit, allowing the teasing out of superficial connections. And yet the similarities between the arguments, coincidental or as part of the post-colonial condition, encourage this manner of bastardized reading. Rahul Bhattacharya was invited to consider how institutions and organizations outside India are constructing histories and simultaneously representing contemporary India and its art. The approach being taken to reconfigure notions of 'home' and 'abroad' is, in his words, a process of 're-worlding', a polycentric play of hegemonies wherein East Asia is emerging as the new 'West'. To mark this hegemonic shift, which he sees as being too recent to be analyzed historically, he gives the examples of the exhibition 'Hungry Gods' at Arario Gallery in 2006, and the appointment of a researcher in India by the Asia Art Archive. So while India, like other countries, is still being constructed internationally by institutions and persons not Indian, it is an altered envisioning that challenges the European stronghold over former colonies.


The construction of national cultures in the imagination of the people of the world does not factor in the multiplicity of regional cultures that coexist within a nation. On reflecting on Hong Kong's tenth anniversary of the handover in June, Frank Vigneron makes the argument that:


the creation of national identities — a recent phenomenon after all — and the political desire to brand and localize them within artificial boundaries has far too often very little to do with any sense of local belonging. It is not possible to differentiate clearly the elements of local cultures from those of national cultures: if the local culture is made up, for instance, of elements like the language we use with family and close friends, as well as the type of food or clothing one is used to wearing, the national culture is made up, for example, of historical events and stories often associated to the 'nation-building' movements of the past.


A supporter of infra-national cultures, created by, for instance, the European Union or the handover of Hong Kong, Vigneron speaks of their ability to 'give back to individuals a stronger measure of confidence in their own cultural makeup' and allow new narratives such as the ones in Hong Kong to surface, 'which define themselves in the narrative of opposition not unification.'


The year 2007 ended with an honest examination by Jonathan Thomson of the art market, its structure, and its positive and negative impact on the creative industries. The growth of the contemporary art market, which includes art fairs, auction houses and biennales/ triennials is, as he notes, highly segmented, where some markets, like the Australian, remain 'staunchly parochial' while other markets like China and India have experienced tremendous growth. While the expansion of the creative economy and the shift towards knowledge-based enterprise has profound effects on society affecting 'the culture of a community, the fabric of the city, the education system, corporate business management and the nature of work, the political process and public policy administration', the negative implications are also dire. The growth in art markets can have adverse affect on creative enterprise, with artists serving the market rather then exploring and developing new ideas in their work. Rather then suggesting this as a possibility Thomson writes that 'the current state of this global market suggests that the transition of contemporary art from meaningful engagement with the world around us to fungible asset is almost complete.'


Thus while Asia, a problematic nomenclature that has the benefit of counteracting the Anglo-American hegemony of power, rushes ahead embracing opportunities put forward by economic developments and technological innovations of the twentieth century; by growing local populations and local markets imbibed with a sense of regional pride, there are voices in each Asian country, such as the variety heard in each edition of 'Perspectives' during 2007, that speak in a temperate tone highlighting the areas that require address. 




Deeksha NATH

Sat, 1 Mar 2008

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